ggm Nonprofit Consulting LLC

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Thinking About Leadership and Management. . .

Everyone else gets to have friends. . .

I’ve been reading Ron Friedman’s The Best Place to Work.  The book applies insights from a variety of fields—psychology, neuroscience, economics, anthropology, etc.—to the work place.  The evidence Friedman presents affirms many things that I thought must be true (natural light is a good thing!), but it’s also caused me to reconsider some of my assumptions.  I wish I’d read this book years ago.

Friedman devotes a chapter to the importance of friendships in the workplace and what organizations can do to better promote friendships.  He shares research that demonstrate workplace friendships to be a strong predictor for productivity and, conversely, that loneliness in the office correlates with poor performance.  The underlying reasons have to do with friendship promoting better communication and with stronger interpersonal connections increasing motivation to work harder for those we care about.  The organizational benefits include reduced sick time, more organizational loyalty and reduced turnover.

That all sounds right. And as managers, I think we do well to build on the benefits that friendship bring both to staff members and to our work.  

And yet, despite the value of workplace friendships, when it comes to those at the top, there are a number of reasons to just say no.  A friendship and a hierarchical relationship are generally incompatible.  Staff need different things from a leader than from a friend.  It should be lonely at the top, not because the loneliness is a good thing, but because it's a necessary price to pay for running a healthy organization. 

Unlike friends, leaders need to be perceived as fair.  Fair or not, when you’re in charge, everyone is watching, critiquing, and acting accordingly.  Friendship might boost the sense of connection for those close to the Executive Director, but for those on the outside, it can be demoralizing.  Those friendships will create an impression that favor (career advancement, job security, flexibility, etc.) is bestowed less on merit than on how much the Executive Director likes you.  Who gets face time with the ED?  Who gets the choice assignments?  Who gets the benefit of the doubt?  Whatever very real benefits there may be to the ED in office friendships, they are likely to have some very real negative impacts on everyone else.

Power is messy.  Most organizations have rules against intimate relationships between bosses and subordinates.  We understand that emotional and professional relationships are likely to have incompatible power dynamics that can lead to inappropriate behavior.  Friendships pose a version of the same hazard.  Our emotional connections to our friends and the power they hold in their friendships with us may well compromise our professional judgments.  

Ironically, part of the messiness is the lack of strong hierarchical tendencies in many nonprofits. Where power relationships are not entirely straightforward, friendships can exacerbate the ambiguity.  Consider for a moment how for many leaders (not you), it can be difficult to hold a direct report accountable.  Now think how much harder still this would be if the one being held accountable were a friend. 

A friendship with the ED is a source of power to others throughout the organization. Predictably, friends wield their relationships with ED to get their way with their colleagues.  This is particularly dangerous when our friendships don’t follow the contours of organizational hierarchy.  Pity the middle manager who sits between the Executive Director and the friend.  

By all means, enjoy your colleagues.  Be friendly with them.  Support them.  Just don't be their friend.  Cultivate a workplace where friendships can take hold to the benefit of both staff and the organization.  But understand that you’re likely to do more harm than good by partaking yourself.